Alex Golitzin should know a thing or two about making ageable Cabernet Sauvignon. His uncle, André Tchelistcheff, made some great wines when he was chief winemaker for Beaulieu VIneyard in Napa Valley from the 1930s through the early 1970s. His wines at Beaulieu were always elegant, supple in texture, beguiling.
Tchelistcheff helped Golitzin to make his first home wine, a 1974 Merlot, and encouraged him to go commercial and start his own winery in 1978. That’s how Quilceda Creek got started, and it quickly became the iconic Cabernet Sauvignon in Washington.
But it wasn’t at all like Tchelistcheff’s wines. Powerful and tannic, Quilceda Creek Cabernet had a grip like a lumberman’s handshake, but the wines also had such pure, joyful fruit character and impressive length that they practically screamed “cellar me!” That’s how they were for the first couple of decades.
Before lunch recently at the winery in Snohomish, a suburb of Seattle, Alex, Paul Golitzin (Alex’s son) and I tasted through a vertical of 10 Quilceda Creek Cabernets from 2007 back to 1998, and ended with the 1992.
Paul joined the winery in 1998. In his first few years, working together with his dad, Paul gradually nudged the style away from the big grip. The increased suppleness came in part from a shift in vineyard sources. Basically he advocated using more grapes from the family’s holdings at Champoux Vineyard in Horse Heaven Hills and cutting back on the percentage from Red Mountain, known for its fierce tannins. For years the percentage was around 40. Today it’s down to 12.
Reducing the percentage of Red Mountain fruit definitely makes the young wines more approachable. Quilceda Creek also moved into a new winery in 2004, which allowed Paul to start using air pulses instead of pumpovers for gentler handling during fermentation and other winemaking options designed to soften the texture. But even before that, Paul was moving the wines in that direction.
Where the old style took 10 years or more to soften that rough edge from tannins, the newer vintages definitely are more cuddly. I have no doubt they will age beautifully. It’s been my experience that balanced, intense, flavorful wines just do. These are great wines. I rated them all (non-blind) between 93 and 97 points, pretty much the same range in my blind tastings for new releases.
The oldest vintage, Quilceda Creek 1992, shows what can happen when the wines age long enough. Aromatically focused and pure, its red pepper and red berry flavors run through what is now a velvety texture, bringing hints of smoke, cocoa and licorice to the mix. Aristocratic, fully integrated, seamless, with a gorgeous balance. (95 points, non-blind)
The 1998 showed a hint of animal in the background, but juicy with red berry and black currant fruit that powers through a layer of firm tannins. It has presence, focus and depth, with caramel and bouillon overtones that add to the mix on the long and complex finish. Has miles to go. (94 points, non-blind)
The 1999 has an aristocratic feel to the structure, refinement to the spicy, cocoa and pepper nuances to the currant and cherry fruit, flavors elegantly integrated. The finish has roasted pepper notes and the tannins have a bite. (93 points, non-blind)
Ripe, plush and generous, the 2000 shows black cherry and licorice flavors, hints of roasted herbs adding extra nuances. The finish comes together with great focus and depth without weight. This one has finesse. (93 points, non-blind)
Ripe, spicy and complex, the 2001 hints at caramel and tobacco overtones to the dark berry and currant flavors, singing through the veil of fine tannins. Has muscle but it dances. (94 points, non-blind)
I found the powerful, tannic, focused 2002 to be the wine of the day. It’s not heavy but muscular with ripe cherry, currant and cocoa, coming together on the racy finish. Has vibrancy in the crisp texture and depth in the complex flavors. Lingers enticingly. (97 points, non-blind)
Round and velvety, the 2003 has a nubby feel to the surface texture, offering depth of dark plum, prune and exotic spice flavors, lingering on the generous finish. Tannins bite a bit, but they just need time. This wine was No. 2 on the Wine Spectator Top 100 in 2006. (95 points, non-blind)
Rich, ripe, generous, the 2004 shows sweet currant and plum fruit, framed with fine tannins, white pepper, clove and hints of savory herbs in the background. Feels more supple and enticing. Grows on you with each sip. (94 points, non-blind)
Dense, focused, more red fruit than usual, the currant and plum fruit underlying the 2005 has some heft, all beautifully integrated to drive through the long and expressive finish. Aristocratic and seamless, with energy. (96 points, non-blind)
The 2006 has quickly evolved into something amazing. Dense, focused, beautifully integrated, it is rich and complex without excess weight, lingering on the very long and refined finish. Has power and grace, and great length. (97 points, non-blind)
The current release, 2007, is fantastically aromatic, with floral and spice overtones to the gorgeous currant and plum fruit. In the mouth it turns elegant and refined, with crisp tannins around a supple core that starts smooth and gathers steam on the finish. (95 points, non-blind)